Noveling 101 – Word Count

It’s one of the most popular questions asked among new writers, and there are generally two answers. One is that it doesn’t matter, and the other is the publisher’s minimum requirements, which are pretty easy to find answers don’t satisfy most budding novelists, but I’m here to give you an answer that should fix the ambiguity once and for all.

The Traditional Publishing Model

Okay, so here’s the short and skinny of it. If you want to have your “first novel” considered by anyone shooting for one of the big publishing houses, there are a couple of rules that you need to learn to follow. Right off the bat, one of them is word count. Even though I think the giants of this industry on on the road toward tying their own nooses, if you want to get in with them, you have to play by their rules, sort of.

The basic fact is that you don’t have 60,000 words or more, then your book isn’t going to be considered a novel by the big fish and the writing snobs. 70,000 is a good minimum target for a first novel, with the trade houses anyway. There are publishers out there who print everything from short story series’ to 800 page tomes, but generally speaking 70-90,000 is your average. Historical and science fiction genres offer more leeway on the top end, up to 120,000 words, and romance tends to be on the shorter side, down to 55,000, but I’m not going to go into the details of the romance genre. That’s it’s own critter and there is plenty out there to answer this question. It’s involved because each publishing house has it’s own word target.

If you want to be trade published, 70-90 thousand. That’s it. There’s your answer.

Why it really doesn’t matter

If you aren’t shooting for one of the biggest six publishing houses, then write your story as long as it needs to be. I hate nothing more than picking up a trade published book that’s obviously been stuffed to fill a damn word count requirement. It’s a stupid system and it’s going to be the death of the publishing tycoons. The up side, is that smaller houses now have it easier than ever. They can expand their reach, put out tighter work, and deliver where this silly notion of word count vs. cover price dominates the larger houses. Books aren’t efficient. They either entertain, or they inform. That’s it! You’re average reader couldn’t give a shit if the word count is too low. While it is nice to get really into a book and have lots of story to get lost in, the average reader doesn’t care. They’ll wait for the sequel if they like your book. (VS gets criticized by book snobs for being to short, but it’s also encouraged more than a handful of people who don’t read to not only pick up my book, but get excited about reading, and giving other books a try)

But the biggest reason of all that you shouldn’t be at all concerned about word count while drafting that first novel, which I’m about to break into two parts, is that the book isn’t finished yet. It’s a first draft, and you have bigger things to worry about than counting words, or worrying about chapter lengths, or what to name your characters, or any of those beginner questions. Just write the freaking book! Until you have it all on paper, or saved in a file on your computer, it’s only a story in your head. You should be focused and committed to adding a little bit to that story every day, not counting words. Once you finish your draft, take a glance at that word count. You may want to jot it down somewhere, because it going to change. Two very disruptive processes happen in the editing phase, which I’ll discus separately now.

Editing will change your word count drastically

When you finally finish, take a break for a couple weeks. Maybe spend some time brainstorming ideas for the next book. Take a vacation. Whatever. Then come back and look at your manuscript. You will likely want to quit, or at least wonder who swooped in and changed all of your sentences into garbage. Whether your draft was 40,000 words or 400,000, there’s going to be shitty writing. A lot of it. The major problem isn’t going to be commas and semicolons. It’s going to be your writing style. Through the process of scribing a novel, you learn tons about writing, especially if you are reading and learning through the process. You know, doing the things you should be doing, while writing everyday. You will be a much better writer than you were when you started.

Essentially, you’re going to see your prose and style in chapter one fall into one of two distinct categories. The first one is that it’s insanely telly, and paints no picture of what your new world looks like, just a lot of this and that. On the flip side, you may have started with long flowery sentences, and at some point in the writing process, realized the error of your ways. You have long verses of smells and shines and feelings and glitter, and fucking adverbs everywhere. No matter which category you fall in, you’re going to completely destroy that word count.

Take my current WIP for an example. The first draft was around 28,000 words (I was trying for another novella). I overdid the shortness, and left a bunch of stuff out, which needed to be clarified. I’m not even halfway through the block edit, and the thing is pushing 40k! On top of that, I realized an important sub-plot that was completely left out, so that’s going to add a ton of words. So much for another novella. It’s simply too much story to stuff into 35k. Finding your voice and writing style is going to drive your word count right out the window, so don’t worry how many you have when you finish the first draft.

Big story changes

This is the other side of editing. Those horrible moments when you realize that an entire chapter is useless and needs to be cut. Or that you started a good subplot in chapter two, and then completely forgot about it, and now it needs to be threaded into the rest of the story fabric. As you go through, scenes will get blotted out, new ones will be added, characters will spawn and disappear. Everything changes. The real work of writing a novel isn’t spitting out a story, that’s only the beginning. The real work is going through it over and over again, moving stuff around, tightening things up, adding details where needed, etc. etc. etc. The fun never stops, believe me. I went through CORP nine times, and it still isn’t ready! And don’t get me started on the three years I spent with TSOV, only to never let it see the light of day. You might draft up a 20,000 word rough outline that turns into a 130,000 word fully-developed story, or scratch out 250,000 to realize that the story needs to be broken up, or that you spent 100,000 words in the middle to accomplish exactly nothing. If you wonder why writers are a bunch of manic people, this is why. The editing.

 

So, this is the dig. If you want to sit there and watch your word counter to verify daily progress, yes, please do that. Make sure that you are adding story. But don’t worry about the total until you are done. It will be an indicator of what you need to do with the story. Whether you need to flesh things out or trim sentences. But it’s only an indicator. You write until the main character either succeeds or fails. Then wrap everything up and close the story out. Then look at the word count total. After you finish editing, and turning that first draft into something truly wonderful, then you can start worrying about whether the trade publishers will want it. But I assure you, if it’s a good story, then there will be a place for it. There’s publishers out there for big books and small books, YA fantasies or niche genres. There’s a reader out there for just about anything. If you don’t believe me, then you should go look around WattPad for a while, and while you are there, go ahead and follow @writefarmlive 😉

Don’t worry about word count. Worry about drafting your story. After you start editing, you can begin figuring out where you want to pitch your story and what you need to do to get it where you want it. If it needs to be shorter, then simplify it. If you want it longer, add a couple side plots. If you are going self pub, then talk to the editor you hire about what could make it better, fix it up, and push it out there into the universe. But don’t let word count become a source of writer’s block. Writing a novel is hard enough without worrying about that bullshit.

Update: Here’s a little story about how much Divergent changed from draft to final (spoilers included)

What do you think? Did I nail this topic down well enough? Did I answer all of your word count questions?


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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

16 thoughts

  1. I once received an editing query on a series of three books about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Each installment was over 200,000 words. I really hope the author whittled that word count down a lot, but they seemed pretty set on the work being just the right length…

    1. 200,000 is a lot. There’s a guy in this new local writer group that I’m in, who has a novel larger than that. Historical fiction gives a lot of leeway, but still. Authors sometimes hold on so preciously to their “darling” sentences they forget that eventually, someone will have to read all of that, and if it doesn’t hold their interest, they’ll never finish the book. It’s a gamble, I suppose, but I’ve been seeing more fluffed up books than not recently.

  2. My novel is large with a capital L. I’ve cut and edited, substituted words and phrases, and it’s still cumbersome. Should it be a series? No, thanks to this article, it’s a saga! Why not? I recall some other novels that I’ve handled (and read and enjoyed) and they are best sellers too. So…Now is the time to move on with it, to pass it around for critique. ‘Be gentle, it’s my baby’. Thank you for the encouragement.

    1. Your welcome, and thanks for dropping in. When you say large? I’m both curious and a little scared of the word count. You’ve obviously considered breaking it up into a series, but even if you go with the whole thing, is there a long prologue at the front filled with backstory by chance? You can snip those bits off and give them away as free ebooks to raise some buzz about the rest of the story. Hook the readers, then dump a tome on them. You’ll also have to consider market price. If you NEED to press the book at $30 to turn a profit, that will turn off new readers. It it must be, then it must be, but I would put a lot of focus on building your audience before release. Thanks again for stopping by, I wish you the best with your saga.

    1. I’m not sure of the order, but Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster would likely be my pics. Macmillan and Hachette are on that list too. Scholastic has gotten huge in the last decade too, but I’m not sure if they are just an imprint of one of the “big 6”

  3. Great, that was very helpful, thank you for your suggestions and guidance. I am a novice writer, in my mid-50s, in a completely different business as my primary career, but I have always wanted to write a novel. I am starting with my first story, something that I have considered writing for many years. I have been thinking a bit about word count, but for the most part, I have just been letting the story flow in my initial draft. And your encouragement has made me realize that I just need to put wc completely out of my mind and just keep focusing on the story. I am interested in your opinion on a separate topic. The initial goal with my story was to write a novel, historical fiction, utilizing an actual setting from my youth, but as I write on, in recent chapters, I seem to be morphing the story into more of a memoir. So I am trying to figure this out. But I was interested in your opinion, would you advise the same as you did with wc, don’t worry about the final structure and how it will play out in the end, just keep focusing on letting the story flow and deal with resolving the inconsistencies later, during editing? Or do you believe it is important to have this nailed down in advance and stick to the plan?

    1. First off thanks for reading, and I’m glad the article was helpful, I hope your words keep flowing to the end.
      As to your question, you might be polarizing that topic a bit too much. When it comes to outlines vs “pantsing” there is a lot of gray area. I don’t advocate long, detailed, formal outlines because they can cause certain scenes to seem forced rather than naturally flowing. Does that make sense? In the same category though, I definitely think there should be some structuring, and serious plot points should be clear before rushing into a draft. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seems to flow very well, as if he was making the whole thing up as he went, and I liked that. My best advice? Don’t polarize outlining vs not outlining. You need to know enough about your story to set targets of where you want things to go. An absolute minimum is to have some idea how the final battle will go, how the story will be resolved, and how the main character will be crafted so that he/she is the perfect person to resolve that conflict. This applies to memoirs and non-fiction too. The main conflict/resolution should be a sticking point of almost every book. It’s what the whole book is about, so it’s important to rectify that part as much as possible. If you are fine using that as a guide for your writing, then you can pants the rest, but most of us aren’t that talented. I think of major plot points as guide posts, and I like to have at least 4-5 of them to steer my characters toward. This way I’m constantly focused on getting them to the next major point in the story. If you put too many details in your outline, and (like me) tend to let your characters take the reigns and drive their own story, then they will often go astray. That’s fine, you can always go back and adjust the lesser points as needed. Another thing to consider is the MC and the world-building. For historical and memoirs this is a little easier, perhaps, but still important. There will be some little details that are overlooked in the plotting process, and adjustments will have to be made. Too rigid of a structure is going to cause you some problems making those changes. The best way to avoid this, that I’ve found, is to keep the main character arc as the story, and the world-building intertwined and showcased, but separate. IOW if you are writing a space novel, and the whole book is dependent on a fuel source for the rocket, then you might decide to change it later, and that will cripple the story. (I had an issue like this in Endeavor, which is still sitting in first draft somewhere on my hard drive) If a world-element is entirely essential, then definitely hash out the details of that piece as much as possible, and add it to your outline.

      I guess the short answer is, it depends on you. How many sign-posts do you need? How far ahead can you look in your story while writing it? The next chapter? The next act? The whole book? Or will you get lost on the next page without a good roadmap. Let that determine how much outline you need, not Internet advice, but definitely have something, even if it’s just a theme tacked to the wall behind your desk.

  4. Yes, I believe it did, thank you for that. My takeaway from your response is to at least have a plan. I do not, certainly not a structured outline, not even in high-level form. I have been shooting from the hip, and that has actually been fun, just letting it flow. But now, well into the story, I seem to be asking myself at times, “Where exactly am I going with this?”. Your point of at least having some kind of a road map, makes a lot of sense. I am going to do that. And I was also thinking of cataloging what I have written so far, by chapter, listing key components, and then compare my roadmap to what I have so far, and adjust accordingly. Thank you for your insights!

    1. Sounds like a great plan. I do something similar on my first edits. I make a chapter by chapter playbook of what is going on so that I can better decide which pieces are keepers, or find some little detail side-plots that I forgot about while drafting.

  5. Thank you so much for the article. I started my book and I have only written a total of 6,000 words. Your article helped me a lot. I was wondering if you can share any information/articles that talk about self-publishing. Do you recommend doing this? This is the very first time that I write a book so I am learning as I am writing it.

    1. I generally recommend against self-pubbing for newer writers because I don’t believe that should be the “first and only avenue” to look at. The publishing industry is picky, mean, heartbreaking, and time-consuming, but figuring out the details of how it all works will teach you at least the basic things that you need to consider before self pubbing. 6,000 words in, for now just concentrate on finishing the story, then worry about the publishing decisions while you are editing. I wrote a blog post on this topic a while back:
      http://writefarmlive.com/2016/09/how-to-self-publish/
      and I cover my preferred strategy in the full version of “Finish the Damn Book,” but in general, I think it’s super important for all authors to learn the steps of querying, verifying BS contracts, and learning when you are getting scammed. Check out http://www.absolutewrite.com and join the forums there. Tons of good people with years of experience.

      In the meantime though, don’t lose sight of your story worrying about publication 🙂 Finish that book, and let me know when you’re done, maybe it’s something I’ll want to look at doing a review on.

  6. 1- This is all BS! We live in the age of internet where everything is FAST! People don’t read anymore FACT! In fact, we only watch videos that are less than 2-3 min long. If you post a 10 min vid on ytube good luck getting views. So you see, your word count is bull. Might have passed in 1970 but not since 1995.

    2- A paperback is only 175-200 pgs tops. 200 very small pages. With wide margins. How many words is that? 10k? 20k at most.

    3-most people read ebooks. you can’t hold a tablet long enough to get to 10k words without hurting your hand. so 100k? yeah, right.

    4-“I’m hear to give you an answer” REALLY? Let ME give you one: the reason you can’t get published and never will is cos you’re illiterate and you don’t care! “Your welcome”? No seriously. What kind of moron are you?? What kind of entitled, retarded millennial asshole sees the red squigglies mistake warning aka underlined words and ignores and publishes print ON A GODDAMNED WRITER’S BLOG? Hello! You have no respect for writing so the writing world has no respect for you and you will never ever write or get published. But hey, good luck with your rant that I didn’t bother to read past you’re idiotic “I’m hear to”. Good luck with flipping burgers buddy boy!

    drops mic.

    1. Thanks for catching that typo, it’s been corrected. I mostly draft these and push them out the door without much (if any) editing. I have other things to write and do during the day.

      You make some valid points here. Attention spans are definitely shrinking, which is why I push for more novellas and short stories, and I love a good piece of flash fiction. I’m in agreement that this push for longer and longer texts is asinine in today’s culture of instant everything, but the publishers are still pushing for long texts. And, FYI, a page of printed text in a novel is usually around 250 words or more, so 200 pages would be 50,000 words. Fast readers can decode text at upwards of 1000 words per minute, but don’t ask me how; I can’t read that fast. That means that some people can finish just about any novel in under two hours. Props to those readers 🙂

      And yes, there are a lot of people reading still. Maybe you don’t see them based on your habits and hangouts, but I talk to them all the time. There’s a guy at my local B+N that sits and digests two to three books a day. They’re out there. You also might consider searching word counts for current bestsellers. There’s people out there in the interwebs with time to research and post those numbers.

      Anyway, I can tell you put some time into this post, so I wanted to respond and thank you for the comment. I’m sorry if the post didn’t live up to your expectations. I mainly focus on intent and motivation here, not grammar lessons. Thanks for dropping by, and bonus points for catching that typo. It’s appreciated. Hopefully the next person will be able to read past “here to” now.

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